‘NATO troop exercises are no war game’

Nicola Adam
Nicola Adam
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Leaving behind her warm office with coffee on tap, journalist Nicola Adam headed off to the forests of Latvia for tents, ration packs and battle exercises with the second battalion of the Duke of Lancaster regiment. Her diary from the training zone shows how she fared

Day 1.

NORTH WEST TROOPS TRAIN WITH NATO IN LATVIA (pictured)''Around 250 soldiers from across the North West have been in Latvia taking part in the NATO led Exercise Silver Arrow.''Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment (2 LANCS) have been working with troops from Latvia, Norway, Estonia and the USA as part of a 2,000-strong 'Battlegroup' sized military training scenario.''It was an opportunity for British Forces to work alongside NATO partner nations as part of the UK's commitment to the collective security of the alliance. All NATO members share training opportunities but Silver Arrow was the latest in a series of Autumn exercises set in Eastern Europe.''In September the 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, which also recruits from the North West, travelled to Poland as part of Exercise Sabre Junction, and in November 120 soldiers of Chester-based 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment will take part in Exercise Iron Sword in Lithuania.''The sharing of skills, equipment and techniqu

NORTH WEST TROOPS TRAIN WITH NATO IN LATVIA (pictured)''Around 250 soldiers from across the North West have been in Latvia taking part in the NATO led Exercise Silver Arrow.''Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment (2 LANCS) have been working with troops from Latvia, Norway, Estonia and the USA as part of a 2,000-strong 'Battlegroup' sized military training scenario.''It was an opportunity for British Forces to work alongside NATO partner nations as part of the UK's commitment to the collective security of the alliance. All NATO members share training opportunities but Silver Arrow was the latest in a series of Autumn exercises set in Eastern Europe.''In September the 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, which also recruits from the North West, travelled to Poland as part of Exercise Sabre Junction, and in November 120 soldiers of Chester-based 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment will take part in Exercise Iron Sword in Lithuania.''The sharing of skills, equipment and techniqu

As I write this I am sitting in my camp bed in my quarter (already catching the lingo).

All I can hear is the roar of the generator providing light in our very green blow­up tent, all that separates us from the bitter night in this former Soviet complex of tank barracks at Adazi, Latvia, an hour away from Latvia’s main city Riga.

A plastic sheet – to denote my female quarters – divides me from the other two reporters, our army photographer and our guide and fixer, Captain Peter Berry.

The bleak, concrete structures are quiet tonight, only a faint rustle from beyond our tent gives away the life that is teeming beyond.

Meanwhile, key teams remain at camp, directing operations and maintaining this temporary settlement on desolate sandy land surrounded by the Latvian forests.

It is eerily quiet tonight as beyond, in those trees, teams of soldiers are starting their realistic war effort that will test them to their very limits.

Here in camp, apart from routine patrols and individuals hurrying around with torches, most soldiers are settling for the night ready for an early start and a hectic two days.

Exercise Silver Arrow has begun.

I am here with 2Lancs, who are here representing the British army as part of a NATO exercise Silver Arrow – in its very basic form it’s a realistic war game.

A large scale, finely tuned, essential, piece of war rehearsal. A giant game of laser quest, if you will.

Of course, it is much more than that. This NATO-­led exercise is a massive show of unity, a display of strength and ultimately a huge act of reassurance for Latvia itself and for neighbouring Estonia – for the NATO alliance.

The timing of this show of brute strength could not be more key.

This weekend marks the Latvian elections and tensions are high.

The Harmony party, led by the mayor of Riga Nil Ushakov and backed by ethnic Russians, is making a bid for increased political power.

But after the Kremlin’s recent actions in Ukraine, many native Latvians are worried the country’s large Russian speaking minority could give Moscow – Vladimir Putin – a route into the Baltic state.

This is a nervous country.

The second battalion of the Duke of Lancaster regiment (2Lancs) are ground troops. Based in Weeton, near Blackpool, and led by Commanding Officer Hamish Cormack, they fight with strategy, with guns and on their feet. But as we arrived at camp, the first things that greeted us were the Latvian and US armies’ array of tanks and armoured vehicles.

They are two of the other nations represented here. Estonia and Norway are also taking part.

After a brief tour around camp, we were introduced to the key elements of life on camp. At the facilities, a giant row of portable toilets, the importance of handwashing is stated.

Cleanliness is vital here. Just one allocated to females like myself – though I haven’t spotted another woman yet. The canteen consists of an organised kitchen and rows of temporary tables.

Tonight we ate like kings on fried chicken, chips and gravy, although almost entirely in the dark.

Tomorrow night we’ll be on rations.

Then to bed, where I faced sleep on a camp bed and a mattress made of a cardboard strip.

Worried our sleeping bags may not be up to the task, we are also provided with ‘bouncing bombs’ – thick green sleeping bags to keep us warm.

They do the job, though I can’t sleep over the loud thrum of the generator and thoughts of thoughts of tank warfare in days gone by.

Day 2

It’s day 2 and after a 6am wake- up call we have been issued with our regulation helmet and body armour as we eat our breakfast in the chilly dawn.

It’s a quiet affair. Many of the troops are out in the freezing forest where they have spent the night on patrol, fighting battles and bunking down wherever they can.

A morning shower is not an option here.

Washing facilities are simple and effective.

Gas burners heat up pans of water, which can then be spooned into a silver bowl and taken to a nearby trestle table for use for washing – not an easy environment for the handful of women on site.

I just clean my teeth and wash my face.

By 7am we are in battlegroup HQ, a heavily camouflaged sprawling tent that acts as the nerve centre for the whole operation.

Inside, the senior officers are gathered for a conference call to direct the next stage of the day’s operations.

We learn the day’s strategy as the top brass catch up with the platoon leaders on the ground via radio before heading out to speak 
to the soldiers in essential roles on site.

Then we head out to the forest to join soldiers on patrol.

It is a peaceful scene, woodland reminiscent of Cumbria’s Grizedale Forest as far as the eye can see – the only signs of life the omnipresent mushroom pickers who wander around, seemingly oblivious of their presence in a war zone.

We check our food and water rations before heading to wait for the patrols, who slip silently through the trees, stopping stock still at intervals, following orders.

Suddenly the silence is broken, an F18 shoots overhead, closely followed by the ear­splitting sounds of a Chinook helicopter.

The battle is on.

An hour later and we are at the side of a huge open plain, there is an air of urgency filtering through.

We shelter in the woodland as soldiers lie on their stomachs gazing through gun­sights before getting an urgent message to run.

We crash over the sandy raised bank to the sight of a Chinook rushing to land. Then we are hit by the moist heat of the helicopter as we run toward it.

We scramble into the giant helicopter, where we are urged forward by an American airman in a skeleton mask. Then up into the air. It’s like being in a giant washing machine. With more men and guns.

Hours later we come across the Chindit company, whose ground battle is lost to the might of armoured tanks driven across the plains by the enemy. They are all ‘dead’.

A heavy loss, which brings home the reality of what these young lads face in the real arenas of war. An hour later they are ‘repatriating’ the ‘bodies’ carrying each other and full kit up and down the sandy path – an approximation of the horrific reality of war.

As the light starts to fade we await our ‘extraction’ from the field.

Three hours later we are still waiting, batting off the persistent mosquitoes.

Then we get the message our transport has arrived and we tramp down path in darkness, a motley crew. Then round the corner and we find ourselves staring down the barrel of a gun – and a tank.

We have encountered the ‘Bothnian’ enemy – played by the Estonian troops.

Their leader gets on the radio, looking unconvinced by our protestations before reluctantly letting us ‘media’ carry on.

Reality, if we had been armed, we or they would have been dead.

Day 3.

Another 6am start and breakfast in the canteen is sausages, bacon patties, beans and the welcome sugary brew.

Today marks the culmination of Exercise Silver Arrow and we have been promised action.

This is a crucial day not just for the NATO troops but for Latvia itself. With results of Saturday’s election due this is a country living on nerves.

We return to the field of battle, where in a remarkable feat of timing we witness the British troops overcoming the ‘Bothnians’ in a huge burst of fire and an amazing display of tactics.

As the soldiers burst through the frontline we can see dozens of ‘dead’ enemy – standing around and watching the culmination of this forward offensive.

As a battalion leader runs forward I hear an Estonian soldier congratulate him on his efforts – not usual in war I suspect.

Next we move forward on the plain itself where troops are moving forward toward the enemy tree line in a decisive manner.

They can smell victory.

For an hour and in directed stages they trudge across the plain as we follow with baited breath.

Their objective is to take this area, to reach the tree line, then victory would be theirs.

In the distance we hear short, sharp, bursts of gunfire then the sounds of heavy artillery being deployed.

Then overheard two Chinooks appear, hovering just above the treeline, ready to dive in and supply/extract troops.

Then two further helicopters dive toward the action, as an air strike begins.

Over our side of the field, away from the action, we trudge toward the tree line through the long grass, where the shout of victory goes up.

For these troops, the battle is over.

The exercise has been declared a success.

As soldiers gather for the closing ceremony, spirits are high and exhaustion palpable.

For the first time soldiers and assorted armed military vehicles and weaponry from five countries gather together to hear speeches and declare Exercise Silver Arrow complete. It’s a remarkable sight, a show of strength and a declaration of unity.

Meanwhile, native Latvians are breathing a sigh of relief at the election results.

The Russian sympathising party gathered around 30 per cent of the votes, but the three-party coalition retains the majority. For now.

It is more of the same and as a Latvian soldier haltingly explained: “The same is better for us.” Right now.

For us, a night in relative civilisation of an army accommodation block – with showers.

As we leave the next day the concierge, a woman, calls me back as we wave goodbye.

“Thank you for coming,” she said, pointing at the soldiers.

“We appreciate you helping our country.”

This may have been an exercise but for Latvia the ramifications are so much more.